One 'loyalty' test too many

LONDON DEC. 7. On Id day, Muslims in Britain woke up to a rather offensive opinion poll in The Daily Telegraph in which British Muslims were asked questions about their "loyalty" to the country, and whether they condemned the September 11 attacks on America.

Though the findings showed that an overwhelming majority were "very loyal" or "fairly loyal" to the Union Jack and condemned 9/11, this is how the newspaper's front page report began: "One in five British Muslims feels little loyalty towards Britain, according to a poll for The Daily Telegraph. The YouGov survey also found that a minority of Muslims were not prepared to condemn the terrorist attacks carried out by Osama bin Laden nor acknowledge the Al-Qaeda as the perpetrators".

One had to wait until the fourth paragraph, by which time most readers would have already concluded that Muslims were disloyal and Osama supporters, to find out that "the majority of British Muslims wish no ill-will towards the West and ... an overwhelming majority said the atrocities in the United States on September 11 last year were not justified".

The whole report, under the misleading headline, "Poll shows misgivings of British Muslims", was an exercise in highlighting the minority negative viewpoint while playing down the views that threatened to undermine the newspaper's own prejudices. There was no obvious occasion for such a poll except to keep alive the debate on whether there has been "sufficient" Muslim condemnation of "Islamic" terrorism.

One year after 9/11, the question continues to be raised again and again and it gets fresh impetus with every new incident whether it is the bomb blast in Bali, the explosion in Mombassa or terror attacks in India. The not-so-hidden subtext is that the Muslim response has not been adequate, and, therefore, either they approve of it or are too insensitive to react when non-Muslims are killed.

Not surprisingly much of the noise tends to emanate from the usually suspect quarters — the far Right, the Tories and The Daily Telegraph in Britain, the BJP and its affiliates in India, the anti-Muslim hardliners in Washington and Tel Aviv, and last but not the least, Salman Rushdie, who has been agonising over the absence of "Muslim outrage at Muslim atrocities".

But the bad news is that now even the liberal Left, which had maintained a more diplomatic stance, has started to share that perception. Britain's most respected Left-wing newspaper, The Observer, has called for "Islam's leaders" to speak out saying that their criticism of "radical Islamic terrorism" has been "muted".

"Too few Islamic religious leaders have condemned Bali, Mombassa and even September 11, preferring instead to deploy the counter-rhetoric of protest for the Palestinian cause, and against American imperialism and the alarming gap between rich and poor which helps incubate terrorism,'' it said in an editorial last Sunday.

So, is this perception true?

It would be easy to dismiss it as anti-Muslim propaganda, but while there is an element of truth that in some of the criticism Muslims cannot escape blame entirely. Their initial reaction to September 11 was as ambivalent as, for instance, that of Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K.Advani's to the events in Gujarat.

The acknowledgement that something terrible had happened was not only grudging but it came with the suggestion that, viewed in a certain context, it could also be explained. A touch of what Prime Minister Tony Blair likes to call "moral equivalence" was all too evident.

Having said that let's face it that Muslims were not alone in suggesting an "explanation" for 9/11. Many non-Muslims, including Americans, believed and said that the roots of so much anti-Americanism around the world lay in the U.S. policies.

The European Left was particularly sharp in calling for self- introspection by U.S. policy-makers and though it was attacked for saying this nobody accused it of actually supporting terrorists.

Muslims, on the other hand, faced a vicious backlash across America and Europe with anyone with a beard or a Muslim-sounding name becoming a target of both public and government intimidation.

A year after the September 11 attacks, Muslims still find themselves lucky if they are waved through an American airport without being subjected to humiliation. And anything with the prefix "Islam" is sought to be portrayed as a potential suspect as we saw recently when the BJP clumsily tried to link the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies with Osama bin Laden. In the event, it ended up with egg on its face but by then the mischief had been done.

Also, as The Daily Telegraph episode shows the media has contributed to a climate where all Muslims are deemed guilty of being Osama supporters until proved innocent. Maybe because of its very nature, it has tended to focus on the negative Muslim reaction with the most regressive and provocative voices being given precedence over the more sober voices.

In Britain, not only the tabloids but respected national broadsheets have been routinely retailing statements from rent-a-quote imams who revel in publicity and the odd Pakistani youth who might or might not be seeking "martyrdom" in Afghanistan or Kashmir. At the height of the war in Afghanistan, newspapers were full of reports of British Muslim youths going to Afghanistan to fight along side the Taliban, and some even becoming "martyrs" in the cause. But since then, these reports have been proved to be grossly exaggerated, and some specific cases even unfounded.

Muslims resent being expected to prove their loyalty day in and day out, and to denounce every act of every Muslim fanatic anywhere in the world. As one respondent to The Daily Telegraph poll said: "According to what is presented in the media, every Muslims is a global terrorist threat, connected to whatever is going on...the oil spill off Spain, the fire strike, traffic problems on M1: it has to be a Muslim conspiracy, right".

Even as there is need perhaps for authoritative Islamic voices to speak out more loudly against "Muslim atrocities", as Rushdie calls them, continued Muslim-baiting, clearly, is not the answer.

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